Minister rules out delay to framework switch-off after ‘careful consideration’

Gillian Keegan has ruled out an extension to the switch-off date for starts on old-style apprenticeships, known as frameworks, after “comprehensive, careful consideration” of sector-wide concerns.

Conversations between the skills minister and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education about a possible delay had been taking place as the July 31 end-date draws nearer.

Numerous training providers and college leaders have warned they would have to pause recruitment of apprentices in some areas, such as stonemasonry, if there was no extension as there is no new apprenticeship standard that would be ready for delivery in August. Covid-19 has also disrupted the switchover.

Rob Nitsch, the institute’s chief operating officer, first revealed the talks were happening during an Association of Colleges webcast last month in which he agreed that extending the date would “make sense”.

But the Education and Skills Funding Agency revealed on Wednesday that they are sticking with the planned cut-off date and all starts must be on standards from August 1.

“We would like to remind providers that all remaining apprenticeship frameworks will be withdrawn to new starts on July 31, 2020,” the agency said in its weekly update.

While the IfATE appeared to have a preference for extending at least some frameworks, the decision ultimately lay with Keegan.

A spokesperson for the institute told FE Week: “The institute works closely to support and inform the Department for Education. They reached this decision after comprehensive, careful consideration of the associated facts and circumstances.

“The institute has always been convinced of the benefits of standards-based apprenticeships.”

The spokesperson refused to comment on whether the institute was advising the minister to extend the deadline.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said that with apprenticeship starts “on the floor”, not extending frameworks is the “wrong decision because it puts even more pressure on employers and providers when we should be maximising the number of opportunities available to young people”.

“Sectors such as plumbing will be particularly hit,” he added.

Karen Woodward, the ESFA’s deputy director for employer relations, defended the decision to stick to the July 31, cut-off date during an FE Week webinar on Monday.

She claimed that the agency has actively informed employers of the switch-off for the past 18 months, urging them to move quickly with developing any new standards that are needed.

“We have actually been specific in writing directly to employers who are still using frameworks for any of their new recruits to say you need to know that this framework is running out of time and if this is an important occupation to you, and you haven’t got standard in place, then you need to act,” she said.

Questioned on whether there was a good case to extend the cut-off date due to the current pandemic, especially for frameworks where there is no viable replacement standard in place for August 1, Woodward said this would be “opportunistic”.

“The current approach is that we are continuing with the timeline that we have got in place. We have signalled this for a good time. I know we have had Covid, and it hit us at the end of March, but all employers know that in order to have a good standard and funding arrangements in place, and to be ready for delivery, even with the wind behind you, takes a good nine months.

“We knew the timeframe for switching off frameworks was the end of July, so if you were really desperate to make sure you have a good-quality standard in place from August 1, you would have been doing this in September last year. So saying you have just thought of this in March, when Covid has arrived, I think is a heck of an opportunistic approach.”